Greg Cote

Liberty City youth football isn’t just about scoring touchdowns. It’s about saving lives

Coaches at the little league practice are like father figures to the kids, says Luther Campbell, Oct. 6, 2015. Rapper Luke Campbell, who is very involved in a youth football program in Liberty City at Charles Hadley Park, helps coach. The league and Campbell has been credited with helping the kids stay out of trouble and improve their grades in school.
Coaches at the little league practice are like father figures to the kids, says Luther Campbell, Oct. 6, 2015. Rapper Luke Campbell, who is very involved in a youth football program in Liberty City at Charles Hadley Park, helps coach. The league and Campbell has been credited with helping the kids stay out of trouble and improve their grades in school. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

There is a new documentary about youth football in a part of Miami where growing up is tough because bullets sometimes get in the way. The film centers on the Liberty City Warriors and their rivalry with the crosstown Gwen Cherry Bulls — but it isn’t about that. Not really. It isn’t even mostly about football, at the heart of it. There is a greater calling.

“Our purpose is to save lives,” as Luther Campbell told us Monday of the Liberty City Optimist program he helped found more than 20 years ago.

The film, “Rivals: The Boom Squad,” is about what helps knit together a largely impoverished community fractured by gun violence. It is about youth football as an escape for so many kids there.

The 45-minute documentary premieres Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. on Viceland, a cable channel. There also will be a live local viewing Sunday from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 6161 N.W. 22nd Ave., Miami.

The documentary is important because the purpose of what’s going on in Liberty City and other inner-city youth programs is. It is good fighting evil: the opposite of all of the wrong that can turn kids bad. It isn’t a panacea, but it is a penicillin.

More current NFL players call Miami home than any other city (27 entering this past season), and a disproportionate number of those who reach the top are from the five-square-mile neighborhood of Liberty City.

Steelers star receiver Antonio Brown, Falcons Super Bowl running back Devonta Freeman, Raiders rising-star receiver Amari Cooper, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Browns and ex-Canes runner Duke Johnson — so many future stars grew up on the modest fields of Liberty City and in or around the Liberty Square Housing Project that locals call “pork and beans.”

They were the lucky ones.

Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the death of 6-year-old King Carter, killed while walking to buy candy. He died clutching three dollar bills in his small fist, shot by a 16-year-old who meant the bullet for someone else.

Little King played for the youngest of the Liberty City teams. He wore No. 14. Last fall, his teammates received new jerseys for the rivalry game against the Bulls — KING CARTER stitched across the shoulders of each.

Santonio Carter describes the difficulties of moving on one year after his son, 6-year-old King Carter, was killed by a stray bullet while playing outside his Northwest Miami-Dade apartment.

For every Devonta Freeman or Duke Johnson, says Campbell, there are many others you have never heard of who get turned wrong and waste their talent.

“Some of the best ones we’ve had that play better ball than anybody just couldn’t make it out,” Campbell said. “Because they wasn’t as smart or as lucky.”

Passionate coaches and desperate kids reaching for what they think football might bring fill the Liberty City program with swagger and electricity.

“That’s the way out,” former Hurricane (and Warrior) Willis McGahee says in the film. “Football is the gold mine.”

The Miami icon Campbell, “Uncle Luke,” is best known as the former frontman for hard-core rappers 2 Live Crew, his résumé balanced by the heart he stills pours into helping Liberty City.

“Football in the inner city is like a rite of passage,” he says. “That’s why everybody around the country comes to Miami to get real players. It starts here.”

Kids can spend eight years in the program, rising through the weight classes from 5-year-old beginners engulfed by giant helmets to the upper 155-pound division that is the sendoff to high school ball.

A Saturday of Warriors football at Charles Hadley Park brings the community together amid a cacophony of popping pads and high-pitched cheerleader calls and the aroma of barbecue smoke. It’s a weekly celebration for folks whose lives are too often stressed by gunfire and sirens.

They ain’t putting no palm trees in Liberty City. We’re living in Afghanistan and they’re living in Dubai.

Luther ‘Luke’ Campbell in the film ‘Rivals: The Boom Squad’

“The mecca,” Campbell calls Saturdays at Hadley. “A big festival. You go there and see the next Duke Johnson — right now.”

Campbell notes the juxtaposition of Liberty City, so close to Miami’s downtown skyline, to partying South Beach, to postcard-pretty Key Biscayne. But, oh, so far.

“They ain’t putting no palm trees in Liberty City,” as Campbell says in the film. “We’re living in Afghanistan and they’re living in Dubai.”

Devonta Freeman, long before the NFL or Florida State or Miami Central High, was a Liberty City Warrior, back when football felt like his safe haven.

More current NFL players call Miami home than any other city (27 entering this past season), and a disproportionate number of those who reach the top are from the five-square-mile neighborhood of Liberty City.

“I’m in the kitchen, I’m making some cereal, a shootout starts,” he recalls in the film. “Seeing somebody get shot or robbed, that’s nothing to me. I seen it every day.”

Surrounded by that, football feels like a secret portal to a better life.

“We all got that same vision, that same hunger,” says Freeman. “Monday through [Friday], it’s a lot, it’s stressful. But when it came to Saturdays? That was my time to let it out.”

Campbell’s philosophy is simple: All kids start out great, but some get turned around.

“The will to be successful has to be embraced,” he says. “You could easily be on the corner, getting shot, selling drugs, being another statistic. But once you’re in the Warriors, it’s a deep-rooted family.”

It’s about football, yes. But more than that, it’s about a dream. A chance.

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